Drawing Inspiration from the Hungry Panda Struggle
Led by Migrant Workers from Socialistic China
On February 2, a group of delivery drivers took a brave step. They waged the first strike in Australia’s history by gig workers. The workers opposed cuts to their pay rates by the company that they toil for, British-based Hungry Panda. Hungry Panda, while having no operations in China itself, specialises in providing food delivery to expatriate Chinese communities. It is largely owned by Western investment firms like Swedish corporation Kinnevik and Britain’s Felix Capital. Hungry Panda responded to the daring strike by removing two strike leaders, Jun Yang and Xiangqian Li, from the platform dispensing gigs to drivers. But the workers stood firm. They organised with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and held rallies and stopworks. And six weeks later, they made history again. They achieved the first ever victory by gig economy workers in Australia. The two sacked workers won their jobs back and Hungry Panda reversed the pay cuts, increased pay in certain areas and agreed to provide accident insurance to drivers.
In terms of improvement in conditions, the victory is modest. Like other gig workers, Hungry Panda workers continue to be terribly exploited. Many have to work long hours to make ends meet. For delivery riders, the resulting exhaustion can literally kill them. Last year, five such riders were killed on the job in Australia. However, the victory at Hungry Panda has enormous significance. It shows that even gig workers – who by definition have no job security because their income depends not on set hours but on being granted individual gigs by their bosses – can win gains through collective action. Let’s seize on this trailblazing struggle to organise other gig workers into our unions and fight for a drastic improvement in their pay and conditions. Let’s not only wage struggles against individual business owners but combine that with a fight for laws to improve the conditions of all gig and casual workers. To do this we need to bring the power of stronger sections of the union movement behind the fight for the rights of these most vulnerable workers. Let’s demand:
- The granting of a decent, guaranteed minimum weekly wage to all currently gig and casual workers even if they are granted less hours in any week than that which would enable them to currently receive such wages.
- The immediate granting of permanency to all gig and casual workers – including the granting of all the rights of permanency like sick pay, annual leave and accident insurance.
Migrant Workers from the Chinese Workers State Spearhead Struggle
The backbone of the Hungry Panda struggle was made up of drivers from the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) who had come here as visa workers or students. This includes the two strike leaders who were initially sacked. This is not the first time that migrant workers from the PRC have energised the workers movement in the countries that they have worked in. In November 2012, 180 bus drivers from China waged Singapore’s first strike in 27 years! Their strike not only flouted Singapore’s harsh anti- strike laws but was done in defiance of Singapore’s union leaders who treacherously condemned the strike. Five of the Chinese strike leaders ended up being jailed by the Singapore regime and 29 other strikers were deported. The struggle did, however, win some improvements to the housing conditions of the drivers. In repressive, capitalist Singapore, the daring strike by the Chinese guest workers had the effect of a political earthquake.
So why do migrant workers from China, even when toiling under precarious employment arrangements, often have a great propensity to wage struggles? The reason is that in 1949, China had a massive revolution that brought workers to power. To be sure, the workers state created by that revolution is bureaucratically deformed and is today being white anted from within by a capitalist class that China’s compromising leaders allowed to emerge over the last four decades. However, unlike in Australia, India or the U.S., where it is the tycoons that governments answer to, in China billionaires are often cut down to size. Indeed, China’s tycoons are terrified when rich lists are released because that can result in a popular upsurge against them on social media that can culminate in the PRC state imprisoning them. Just two weeks ago, the PRC forced one of the two main companies controlled by China’s most well-known capitalist, Jack Ma, to restructure in a way that will cripple its profitability. Indeed, ever since the PRC squashed a lucrative share sale of that company last November, the normally high-profile Ma, fearing arrest, has gone into seclusion. Could you imagine that happening to Gina Rinehart or one of the Murdoch dynasty here!
As a result of these anti-capitalist crackdowns in China, while wages are lower, in keeping with the country still pulling herself out of her pre-revolution poverty, working conditions are better than in Australia. This is especially true in the PRC’s socialistic public sector that dominates the key parts of her economy. As a huge sprawling country, there are some private companies, especially those owned by Western or Taiwanese capitalists, which can quietly get away with abusing workers rights. However, ever since the PRC instituted a pro-worker law in 2008, workers rights have considerably improved. Article 4 of that law gives unions effective veto power over any modification to wages or conditions at a workplace. More significantly, when Chinese workers strike, PRC authorities often – though not always – support the workers not only in their court rulings but by tacitly allowing workers to picket and, sometimes, even take the bosses hostage with impunity. The result of all this is that Chinese workers have a sense of entitlement – a sense that comes from being a member of China’s ruling class. So, when they go as temporary workers abroad, they bring that workers don’t have to put up with crap spirit with them. The Australian workers movement, which has been on the back foot for decades, sure does need this kind of “communist Chinese interference”! Moreover, as the contribution by Chinese workers at Hungry Panda has shown, the existence of a workers state in China is good for the workers movement here. On the other hand, if the capitalist powers succeed in their campaign to destroy the PRC workers state and, thus, turn China into a massive sweatshop for capitalist exploitation this would drive down the conditions of workers the world over. Thus, we must stand with socialistic China against the capitalist powers’ Cold War drive. Rebuff the lying, anti-communist propaganda campaign over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the pandemic! Oppose the U.S. and Australian capitalist regimes’ military build up against socialistic China!
Demand the Rights of Citizenship for All Workers Residing Here
As well as being from China, Hungry Panda workers are often also temporary residents from South Asian countries. Their powerful struggle has blown to pieces the nationalist notion that visa workers are simply people who “take Australian jobs” rather than a valued part of a potentially fighting workers movement. Nevertheless, that guest workers and international students can be deported so easily and have no access to social security is a huge deterrent to these workers engaging in struggle. Even as pro- ALP union leaders and their ALP parliamentary mates have been quick to use the Hungry Panda workers victory to strengthen their own reputations with workers, much of the pro-ALP union leadership isolates visa workers still further by calling to “keep out guest workers”. Fortunately, a small number of unions are now rejecting this divisive approach that weakens the ability of workers to unite and fight. We say that the workers movement must fight for the granting of all the rights of citizenship to every worker, refugee and student who is here. Let’s unleash the full fighting potential of migrant workers seen so powerfully in the Hungry Panda struggle.
There is something else holding back struggle by migrant workers and that is the incessant racism that they are copping. Such attacks intimidate these workers and make them feel that they don’t belong here and, thus, would be demonised further should they rock the boat. The entire workers movement must come to their defence. We cannot stop individual attacks as they take place at random and are committed by a large number of disparate racists. However, when organised white supremacist groups hold a public provocation, the workers movement should unite with Aboriginal people, all people of colour and all anti-racists to sweep the racist scum off our streets. By dealing severe blows to the most organised racists we can scare the more numerous, garden-variety rednecks into pulling their heads in. Right now, people of Asian background are especially being hit with racist attacks which are getting worse by the day. To stop this we need to oppose the main factor currently encouraging anti-Asian hate attacks – the Cold War drive against socialistic China. Yet, the current ALP leadership of the workers movement is at one with the right-wing Morrison government in its Cold War – and increasing push towards hot war – drive against socialistic China. The ALP does so for the same reason that they promote divisive slogans against guest workers. The ALP accepts the overall domination of the capitalist class and is only seeking to improve workers position within that framework. That necessarily means that instead of fighting to strongly challenge capitalist interests they are left with trying to improve the position of local workers at the expense of their migrant and international worker counterparts. We need to decisively turn the workers movement away from this divisive and failed “strategy.” We need a workers movement that understands that we cannot defend workers interests if we try to gain the acceptance of the big end of town – a movement that understands that workers interests only come by uniting workers of all races and nationalities in militant struggle against their common enemy, the capitalist exploiters.
Let’s Use the Inspirational Struggle by Hungry Panda Workers to Build a Working Class Fightback
The struggle by Hungry Panda workers is not only crucial for gig and casual workers. By showing that even the most vulnerable workers can win through collective action, they provide inspiration to all sections of the union movement. And right now our workers movement sure is in need of inspiration! The bosses have used the pandemic to attack working conditions, retrench workers and make those still working toil yet harder for the same pay. Let’s unleash powerful industrial action to smash attacks on workers’ wages and conditions! Fight for a minimum weekly wage and permanency for all currently gig and casual workers! Win secure jobs for all by forcing capitalists to increase hiring at the expense of their profits! Build the unity we need to wage a class struggle fightback – smash racist attacks and demand the rights of citizenship for everyone who is here! Defend the PRC workers state that gave the Hungry Panda guest workers their “sense of entitlement” that enabled Australia’s first ever successful industrial struggle by gig workers!